Donald Fires Himself

Why the two Apprentice finalists are so un-Trumplike.

Where is the brashness? The comb-overs? The inflated sense of self-importance?
No brashness? No inflated sense of self-importance? No comb-overs?

In The Apprentice, Donald Trump set out to find his doppelgänger, the next aggressive, combed-over, self-important tycoon. But from a field populated with prickly, quirky, and assertive mogul-wannabes, Trump has narrowed his choices to a pair of mild-mannered guys: Kwame Jackson and Bill Rancic. When Trump fires his last victim on tomorrow night’s finale, the winner will be less a mini-Trump than a man in a gray flannel suit.

It is a strange and unlikely outcome. CEOs generally create followers in their own image. When Jack Welch ran General Electric, he famously filled his executive ranks with men like himself—athletes who didn’t go to top schools, workaholics, strivers with chips on their shoulders—and managed their careers carefully. That’s why his GE proved such fertile ground for CEOs-in-training.

In The Apprentice, Trump claimed to be engaged in the same type of venture. He set out to find a young person who exhibited the brash leadership qualities he does. Trump’s businesses—the casinos and hotels, Mar-a-Lago, golf courses, and high-end apartments—are primarily sales and marketing organizations. The trick is to lure customers with glitz and sex, inducing those with a strictly nouveauconception of class and luxury to pay through the nose for what he’s selling. Trump’s life and work, as documented nicely in this Fortune piece, are a constant and exhausting exercise in building a brand around a name and using a combination of bluster, guile, charm, and seduction to wangle better deals.

To a large degree, The Apprentice mimicked Trump’s business. Most of the tasks the apprentice-wannabes tackled involved selling goods and services—lemonade, art work, a rental apartment, celebrity auction items, a party room—to gullible members of the public eager for a brush with boldface names at inflated prices. It is telling that no task involved, say, reading a balance sheet or a loan-amortization schedule—skills that are essential for real-estate development but in which Trump’s record is less than stellar.

But over the last several weeks, as the crowd was winnowed from eight to the final two, Trump systematically weeded out the contestants who shared his style. Virtually all of the final eight worked in sales or marketing—except Kwame. But Trump found each of them wanting. Nick Warnock, the boastful and studly (very Trumplike ego) Xerox copier salesman—”there’s no account I can’t penetrate”—ultimately came across as an impotent schlepper. In Amy Henry, the self-professed “ruthless business woman with a Southern sense of charm,” whose confidence was undaunted by the fact that she “lost almost everything in the dot-com bust” (Trumplike cockiness in the face of adversity), Trump saw only a superficial sorority sister. Troy McClain, the charming mortgage broker and real-estate developer who lacked a college degree (Trumplike smooth-talker), was not sufficiently sophisticated (!) for The Donald. Heidi Bressler, the profane, street-wise telecommunications saleswoman with the touching backstory (a cancer-stricken mother), had Trumplike grit and heart. But he booted her. Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, the former political consultant and all-around pain-in-the-ass who “has successfully trained a Miss USA, Miss Taiwan, and Miss Guyana” (Trumplike affinity for beauty pageants), proved too duplicitous for the Donald’s taste. Katrina Campins, the hottie real-estate-broker-to-the-stars from Miami who favored tiny miniskirts, hair tosses, and bedroom eyes, was extremely Trumplike in her sleazy charm. But he decided she wasn’t a leader.

When presented with a crowd of Trumplike applicants, apparently even Trump found himself unbearable. Trump engineered his personality out of The Apprentice—leaving us with bland, genial investment manager Kwame and bland, genial Midwestern entrepreneur Bill.

Indeed, they’re the anti-Trumps. Kwame, of whom it is always noted that he graduated from Harvard Business School, seemed to get by on his credentials rather than his hustle (like so many of his HBS classmates). In the real world, hetoiled at Goldman Sachs, perhaps the least Trumplike firm on Wall Street. And he’s not even a master-of-the-universe investment banker or a brash trader—he’s a friendly broker, helping other people manage their money.

Bill, a hard-working cum laude graduate of Loyola University in Chicago who founded an online cigar business, seems to possess all the killer instinct of a bichon frisé. When his group had to rent out a Brooklyn apartment, Bill negotiated by meekly asking the client what she was looking to pay.

Of course, both Kwame and Bill seem like good, capable guys. They didn’t ruffle feathers, play mind games with fellow contestants, or lie. They didn’t incite fear, desire, or envy, which is one of the reasons they survived week after week. They both seemed grounded and capable of having a conversation about someone other than themselves. They’re the kinds of guys The Donald would probably like his daughter Ivanka to date. And the kinds of guys who would make fine executive vice presidents and middle managers at a Fortune 500company. The show that was supposed to mint New York’s next brash entrepreneur has instead given us the Organization Man, 2004.